[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by Till Bruckner, independent researcher, advocacy manager for Transparify, and regular contributor to On Think Tanks. This interview forms part of a series of new posts from Africa looking into the future of think tanks.]
Dr. Cheikh Oumar Ba, a socio-anthropologist by training, has been involved with the national think tank scene in his country for nearly 15 years now. Today, he is the Executive Director of the Initiative Prospective Agricole et Rurale (IPAR), a think tank established in Senegal in 2004 that deals with a wide range of rural and urban policy issues. Till Bruckner spoke with him about the opportunities and challenges facing think tanks in West Africa.
Till Bruckner: What are the current trends in policy research in Senegal?
Cheikh Oumar Ba: Policy research has improved somewhat in the last few years with the emergence of several think tanks and other policy research centres and an environment in which the demand for evidence based policy is growing slowly but at a steady pace. Generally speaking, policy research capacity is still weaker than in developed countries, but it’s definitely growing.
In the past, young people would go off to study abroad and not come back – the classic brain drain. Today, we’re seeing a new pattern emerging. Many still go abroad for some or all of their higher education, but after some time they come back to work here, and later they may go to work abroad again for a while. So it’s more of a circulation than a drain.
TB: Is it possible for an ambitious Senegalese student to become a strong policy analyst without going abroad for higher education?
COB: In the past, that didn’t use to be the case, but things are changing. The internet in particular has really democratized education by making a lot of information accessible for free. There are now a few strong researchers emerging from Senegalese universities who have never studied abroad. However, overall, standards are still low at Senegalese universities, and some other countries in the region perform far worse.
TB: So what’s the research team at IPAR look like?
COB: We currently have five researchers with PhDs on the team full-time, plus five associates with PhDs who we can call on for specific projects. The full team also includes several research assistants and support staff.
TB: How do you attract and retain top people?
COB: That’s a constant challenge. We live in a competitive setting in this globalized world and mobility has to be factored in. For example, we had an excellent economist working with us once but after a year, he left for a job with the World Bank. However, all in all, we’re doing well at staff retention. We pay good salaries, not quite as much as the U.N. does, but we’re definitely paying good market rates. We also try to provide a positive working environment.
TB: How do you manage to come up with the money?
COB: That’s a constant struggle of course. We were lucky early on to benefit from core funding under IDRC’s Think Tank Initiative (TTI) and this gave us room to grow and to build the foundations of our organisation. In addition to this opportunity, we also put employees down as consultants when we tender for some research projects, so they may provide input for two months at rates that will pay their salaries for over half a year. That really helps to cover overhead costs and also enables us to keep researchers on board long term, instead of just stringing them along from one project to the next. Right now, five of our researchers with PhDs are working with us on open-ended staff contracts, rather than on short term project funding.
TB: Do donors sometimes balk at paying full market rates for local researchers?
COB: That can happen sometimes. We recently put in a tender that had an international team of researchers from various countries, worldwide, and the client complained about the price tag of the African researchers on the team and asked us to lower their rates. We refused. You have to remember, we all went to the same universities, we have the same degrees. In the end, the client paid up.
TB: Some scholars argue that think tanks find it easier to influence policy in decentralized and fragmented political systems, like in the U.S., than in centralized systems like in France. In many African countries, it seems like everything revolves around the one man on the top. Does that make it impossible to influence policy?
COB: Not at all. Presidents tend to be strong in this region, but there is room to influence policy as most of the issues we work on don’t require direct access to the president, they get decided on at a lower level. For example, there’s a working group on land ownership issues at the national committee on land reform. Several of our experts sit on the working group, they were invited to join by the president of the committee himself for their expertise. Once, we decided that we really needed to have a national discussion about youth employment. We convened a conference and invited senior government officials and private sector representatives, who then had a really good discussion of the issues involved for a whole day, and we got strong media coverage too. We also work in other countries in the region, and there the picture is similar there. On one occasion, in Mauritania, we had six different government ministers sitting around the same table at a workshop we organized.
TB: If debates are politicized, how do you manage to maintain neutrality? Do you ever get accused of being Trojan horses sent in by donors?
COB: We conduct our research objectively and then we stick with our conclusions. This means that at times, we publicly criticize certain donor policies, including the policies of donors that have funded us, if we think that those policies are unwise. The same goes for policies presented by various local actors. I think that over the years, people have observed that we consistently say what we think based on our research and expertise, and they have come to respect us for that.